Conveyor belt sushi is famous for bringing around Japan's best-known food with no effort, but it's also one of the best ways to eat out cheaply while you're here.
Also known as revolving sushi or kaiten-zushi, the video above sets the scene pretty well. The conveyor runs in a big square. Patrons sit on the outside of the rectangle and chefs work inside the conveyor. They're not in the scene here, but waiters are running around behind the customers clearing tabs and serving drinks. On the conveyor belt are plates of sushi, obviously, but also little ads rolling by promoting seasonal items.
Here are 7 tips that let me leave stuffed for no more than 1500 yen:
Ah, hot springs. One of the finer parts of life in Japan. You should definitely experience one while you're there. While there can also be some very real experiences in culture shock while you're there, the onsen is absolutely worth adapting to the local culture.
This post will hopefully prepare you mentally for the trip. Without further adieu, here's some advice from my own experiences at various hot springs all over the country:
Nudity: May as well get this one out of the way. Yeah, the overwhelming majority of hot springs involve nudity. This is why they're sex-segregated. There are non-nude places where co-ed groups of friends can go together. Still, nudity is the rule rather than the exception and for the most part you'll end up with old people who don't bother you.
Beer lovers will either love or hate their trip to Japan. Fans of light lagers will find the stuff fresh and cheap anywhere they go. But real beer snobs seeking the darker, stronger or more complex brews get bored easily. Thankfully, there are remedies for travelers weary of the Asahi/Kirin/Sapporo triumvirate.
The blog LetsJapan has a pretty decent writeup of Baird Beer, one of the popular local craft brews, and the Harajuku Taproom, one of the more famous spots to go for it. Quoth our hero:
Baird Beer’s credo is “Balance + Complexity = Character.” I’ll leave it to you to ruminate on that. Suffice to say that I tried the Wheat King Ale. … It was, indeed, balanced and had a rich flavor that delighted my tongue without taking me up by my shirt collar and shaking me.
Have a flight out of Narita Airport? It's a huge building, and there's a lot to do. I've been through the airport bunches of times, so I've rounded it down to just a few places visitors should hit up in each terminal.
Are you Terminal 1 or Terminal 2? A ton of airlines serve Tokyo Narita. Before you plan out your shopping trip, check the official list to see which terminal you'll be in. It's not easy to switch terminals, so you should stick to the one you arrive in (unless you have a rare airline switch for a Tokyo transfer).
Eat/shop before passport control! After passport control, it's just rice balls and soft drinks – and prices go up quite a bit. Once you leave this area, you're pretty much just hanging out at your gate until departure.
Duty free is great for alcohol! Duty free shops are very commonly not a bargain around the world for booze, cigarettes, or perfume. The exception to the rule is Japanese liquor. Personally, I don't leave Japan without a bottle of Suntory Hibiki 17, which at 6,000 yen is a solid deal for the whiskey that it is.
Roppongi Hills is almost a city in itself. There are places to shop, eat, live, and play. It's also a hub for high-end culture in Japan with a number of luxury restaurants, international fashion brands, and apartment towers known for housing Japanese celebrities.
So, with all that awesomeness in mind, here are 5 highlights from the complex:
1. Mori Art Museum Asia has some great modern art museums as it is, but the Mori suddenly showed up and made a splash. Situated near the top of the Mori Tower (the big tower of the complex, lit up in blue in the photo there), it's a beautifully-designed museum with a great rotation of exhibits.
2. Tokyo City View The soon-to-open Tokyo Sky Tree may quickly take away the title of "best city lookout point" from the top of the Mori Tower, 52 stories up, but for the time being this is the one you want. It's basically part of the art museum, so you can get a combined ticket and do exhibits and the awesome view. If it's light outside and the weather's OK, you can go outside on the roof and view the endless buildings of Tokyo al fresco.
Oden isn't the famous kind of Japanese food that tourists come to the country for, but locals and expats know it all too well.
It's a sort of cuisine – it's a collection of things that are boiled in a fishy broth. Everything that comes out is hot, and most of it is pretty heavy on the protein. So, it's really known as a winter food.
Oden is found everywhere. During the coldest winter months, you can find it in every convenience store, and the stores will even smell of the stuff during that time.
Here's a more detailed explanation from the Japan Visitor Blog:
Dashi [the broth oden is made in] is made with konbu seaweed and shaved tuna flakes (kezurikatsuo), so oden is not really vegetarian, though many of the other ingredients are staples for non-meat eaters: daikon radish, potatoes, konnyaku, kinchaku (mochi in a deep-fried tofu pouch) and tofu. Other things found in oden include boiled eggs, chikuwa fish cakes, folded seaweed, meatballs on sticks, sausages, octopus and sometimes skewered beef.
Personally, it's not for me. But at least I was brave enough to try it.
An expat in Japan has done a quick write-up on a festival in Japan where young women, dressed in kimonos, participate in an archery competition.
The Toshiya Archery Event is part of the coming-of-age ceremonies for 20-year-olds, held nationwide in January, but the archery is special to the Sanjusangendo Temple in Kyoto. Writes the attending expat:
Toshiya is an event that goes back some four hundred years though today it is significantly different. In the past, Toshiya was predominately for men to show off their prowess and skill with a bow. Today, archers shoot at targets 60 meters distant but in the past archers would shoot the entire length of the long Sanjusangendo Temple which measures about 120 meters.
Men participate too, as this is part of a festival coming from the samurai tradition, but they don't look quite so lovely.
There are a few gems among the many photos posted from the event, so be sure to check those out as well.
Good Luck Trip, a magazine publisher, has put out a new issue of its free guide to Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe, and it's accessible online for free too. The guide is pretty long (over 50 pages) and full of stuff to do if you decide to leave Tokyo.
Osaka Osaka has historically been known as a town of commerce, and even today one of its major draws is shopping. The neighborhood of Tennoji is recommended as a shopping area, but the guide leaves out America-mura, a rather un-American area that's the center of the city's fashion. The guide also dedicates a page to basically advertise Yodobashi Camera, which is actually a national chain and not unique to Osaka at all.
Kyoto Naturally, Kyoto is known for its cultural tourism. Options include the tea ceremony, Zen meditation, a Maiko dress-up session, and of course tons of temples. Don't miss the old-school Gion district.
Kobe Kobe is a great town for a mix of the above two environments. It's more relaxed than Osaka, but still has some big-city energy and lots of international cuisines. I can hardly recommend a better place to eat churrasco (aka Brazilian BBQ) than here.